In New Mexico, Jones had been pursuing pigs for three years when Justin Stevenson arrived to start his USDA job in 2008, fresh off a gig in Oregon, where he saw hog havoc first-hand. He and Jones began working together, and their shared porcine passion evolved into friendship, earning them buddy-movie nicknames from their colleagues. "I'm Boss Hog," Jones says when we meet, a playful grin flashing beneath his well-kept handlebar mustache. Stevenson, who at 38 is more than two decades Jones' junior, goes by Little Piggie.
A 5-square-mile hog stronghold in Quay County has been their laboratory for testing control methods. Stevenson, a voracious consumer of global hog research, has tried to ensure they follow best practices to the extent finances allow. They've begun using automated deer feeders to bait traps, and Jones uses motion-sensitive cameras to track pigs' movements, waiting until a group habitually enters a trap to set it, which increases his odds of taking whole groups at once. He uses radio telemetry to check whether traps have been tripped, reducing his driving distance significantly. He's convinced ranchers to put up cash for the occasional aerial gunning mission. And he's released Judas pigs outfitted with tracking devices. These new techniques and technology, and a few years' practice, have helped increase Jones' success: Since last October, he says, he's removed nearly 120 pigs, more than double what he took in previous years.
Yet the pig population still seems to grow. No one has a handle on its actual size -- in Quay County or statewide -- but signs are more widespread, and sightings more frequent. Hog work now consumes more than half of Jones' time. "I think we're to the point of living with them," Jones says. To him, the question has become: "Just how much are we willing to give?"
Stevenson doesn't see it that way. He admits they're at a disadvantage as long as Jones is a one-man army. "But if we had 15 Rons, we could eradicate them (in Quay County)," he says. "No question. It just takes coordination."
It also takes money, which is scarce everywhere. Not a single federal or state dollar -- or job -- is dedicated just to hog management in New Mexico. Nor has funding materialized to implement Oregon's pig plan. "The problem doesn't look severe enough yet," says Stevenson. Wildlife Services, the main agency doing active control in New Mexico, has asked staff to cut travel by 20 percent this year. For employees like Jones, that means less time devoted to chasing hogs.
Some regulatory progress has been made. As hogs' popularity among hunters has grown, so has their reach. People pluck pigs out of one place and release them elsewhere to increase hunting opportunities. In 2009, New Mexico banned commercial hog hunting, removing the financial incentive to establish sport populations. Transporting or releasing feral swine was also outlawed. Still, last fall, pigs were discovered for the first time in the Rio Grande Valley bosque, lush riparian habitat where they will be difficult to find, much less eliminate. "That marked a 100-mile migration we know they didn't make on their own," Stevenson says.
"You've got people trying to eradicate them, and right next door, people trying to increase them," says Mayer of most states' conundrum. "I'm not sure how you win a game like that." Scientists are working on toxicants with a pig-specific delivery system and contraceptives. Either would give people a big leg up in the swine wars, but both are five to 10 years out, maybe more.
Ironically, the luckiest break for swine control in New Mexico so far has been the discovery of hog activity in sand dune lizard and lesser prairie chicken habitat around Roswell. Both are candidates for the endangered species list, and though no one has documented hogs snacking on either, their proclivity for herps and birds' eggs makes it likely. Oil and gas operators are funding projects to prevent both species' further decline through a candidate conservation agreement. Next year, the fund will give $50,000 to the Bureau of Land Management and Wildlife Services for hog removal in those species' habitat -- the first source of dedicated funding for control efforts in the state.
At this point, the ultimate threat pigs pose to the West's wildlife, agriculture and environment is hard to project. Mayer believes pigs will eventually inhabit all 50 states. But public education and a vigilant response could help protect the Intermountain West, which is still mostly hog-free. A group was detected in Idaho's Bruneau Valley in 2009, but state officials think aggressive hunting wiped it out. Wyoming doesn't have pigs, but passed a pre-emptive law in 2009, authorizing state officials to kill them should they show up. Arizona is keeping an eye on its nascent population, but doesn't actively manage them. Colorado has worked cooperatively with Kansas and Oklahoma to control pigs in the southeast corner of the state.
In desert environments, feral pigs face at least one major limitation. "If we're going to win in a particular county or region, we're gonna win based on lack of water for those pigs," says Stevenson. There's more water out there than you might think, thanks to agricultural improvements like stock tanks. But their placement is known and could be manipulated, if used seasonally by cows.
Sitting in his "office," the cab of his government-issued Ford F-250 pickup, Jones scrutinizes photos downloaded from a remote camera. For a few weeks, he's had it trained on a corral-shaped trap that sits empty, strewn with corn, near his parked truck.
"Man alive, I can't believe it," Jones says. The picture trail shows Jones setting the trap at 12:40 p.m. the previous day. For a few hours after that, all was quiet. Then, at 4:18, his targets wandered into the frame: a group of six or so feral pigs that had visited the unset trap twice before. But this time, they didn't go far enough to trigger the trap door. Just six minutes after arriving, they were gone.
"Something spooked these pigs off the trap," Jones says. "See this one running? He's in a hurry." Whatever it was -- a rancher moving his cows, a coyote -- Jones shrugs it off. "Guess what? They'll be back."
This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.